Introduction: How to Disassemble a Pallet

About: Don't believe everything you read online.

As an avid pallet recycler w >100 pallets disassembled & repurposed this summer, I am sympathetic to the pains & frustrations of disassembly. But when I heard that someone took 6 hard hours to take a single pallet apart when I do it daily w 100% usability in <7 minutes, I knew I needed to tell folks that there was a better way.

Step 1: Pallet Construction

Pallets are built strong to hold tremendous weight on top, yet light to facilitate transport of that weight. Because of the multitude of loads, there's no specific "standard" pallet, just more or less common in a given industry. Since most of my projects are 4' in size (benches, tables, etc.), I tend to accumulate more pallets w 48" slats than other sizes, but I've got small 36" wide pallets & 60" long pallets & everything in between.

Basic construction regardless of size is a 2x4 (w or w/o fork cutouts) to support the top (more slats) & held vertical by the bottom slats (fewer). Pallets that hold heavier weight (such as bottled water) usually have 4x4 blocks instead of 2x4s boards.

The slats are usually 1x4 or 1x6 secured via pneumatic nail gun w spiral twisted nails pretreated w glue. The heat from forced entry activates the glue. The twist prevents pull out. Since pallets can have a LONG lifespan & extensive reuse, they are designed to NOT come apart.

They are also treated to prevent rot. Some make a huge "life threatening" speech about Methyl & Ethel chemical treatment, but I haven't found one of these pallets yet. Maybe it's a regulation thing of what they used to do back in the '80s or something. Of the 109 pallets that I've brought home & the 1,000+ I've seen in piles around town, ALL of them are stamped w the HT code for "Heat Treated". Stay safe, but don't let the scaredy cats freak u out too bad.

Step 2: Disassembly Options

Most DIY folks use hammer, pry bar, & homemade wood or metal contraptions to pry the slats off the 2x4s. This has 3 BIG problems:

  1. Work
    I'm lazy. I don't like to break a sweat over a simple task when I've got better things to spend my energy on.
  2. Time
    Breaking pallets down by brute force takes forever! Each nail has to be pulled & prodded. Each slat has to be tapped & twisted. Then u have to denail each board or risk scrapes & worse.
  3. C) Damage
    Even worse than all that, you spend 30 minutes to an hour ripping the pallets apart only to end up w splinters & short pieces that won't build what u wanted the pallet to begin w. 3 pallets w 15 slats each might only yield 35 usable boards. Unless u need a reliable source of kindling, there has to be a better way.

    A quick search online reveals industrial level pallet recycling machines that cost thousands but will allow 2 men to disassemble a pallet w no breakage in as little as 30 seconds. Another style of machine lets a single user disassemble a pallet in 45 seconds. Obviously, this isn't practical for the handyman trying to build on the cheap, but what do they do different? Instead of pulling the slats off w force, they CUT the nails!

Step 3: Reciprocating Saw

To give credit where it's due, I got this from Old World Farms.
For <$50 u can buy a brand new reciprocating saw. At pawn shops, garage sales or Craigslist, you can find them even cheaper. Sometimes called a Sawzall from the original machine built by Milwaukee Tools, these are awesome rough cut demolition tools. Insert the special blade between the slat & the 2x4 to cut the nail w no stress on the slat or you. Let the tool do the work!

Step 4: Saw Blades

Not all reciprocating saw blades are created equal. There are 4 basic styles:
A) Wood only
B) Metal only
C) Crosscut / Tree Trimmer
D) Bi-Metal
You want this last style. Not all of them are created equal either. Bostitch makes a great Nailcutter blade. Milwaukee makes a superb TheAxe blade. The secret is to not let the nail get too deep between the teeth to prevent tooth breakage.

Step 5: Process

Step 1) I prefer using a 6" Bostitch Nailcutter on the ends. These were on sale @ WalMart so I bought several packages. 6" doesn't bend much, & these blades last a good dozen or more pallets each. 2/3 done!

Step 2) Switch to 9" Milwaukee TheAxe blade. Keep your blade straight & work the middle support.

Step 3) Denailing is optional, but if u really want or need to, the slats are easy w just a dull nail to drive them up & a quick pull out. 2x4s are a bit trickier but can be done w a slice down the middle long ways w a circ saw followed by the dull nail & wire cutters.